Are you all fine?

koreanstory

The following is totally personal translation of the so-called “Are you all fine?” wall poster a college student Mr. Hyun-woo Joo publicly put on his college wall in Dec. 10, 2013. In this wall poster, Mr. Joo asked if it was really fine for rising generation to stay sterile or dormant to social issues that has broke out since the presidential election last year (or even countless issues since last government) in a plain but persuasive voice. Resonating with his blunt knock on their conscience, wall posters responding to it saying ‘No, I am not fine with that!’ appeared everywhere; in fact, they are literally spreading like a wildfire in Korea. His fellow students respond they are not OK with them, then students of other colleges, older generations who have been hit hard by years of abnormal social developments and even high school students followed suit. It is now a…

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Live from Seoul: March Against NIS

A demonstration and march against the NIS is currently underway as various groups come together in a show of solidarity. Most active struggles are present at the march, including the Korean Peasants League, Gangjeon Village representatives, Subway Workers Union, and various student groups, political parties and labor unions. The march started at Seoul Station and is currently working it’s way towards the Blue house. In solidarity, the ISC is also in attendance.

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Making Connections: An Expat’s Journey Through Korean History, Politics and Economics

By Taryn Assaf

As expats, and as English teachers, many of us come to Korea not too long after we’ve finished university. At university, our lives are often transformed. We become familiar with the workings of the world- its histories, tragedies, victories and complexities. For some of us, it contributes to a richer understanding of our place in the world, and offers us a chance to reflect on how our lives are situated in a complex web of relationships that affects everyone. Many of us become politicized during this time, leading to our first taste of activism – a taste we may long for but cannot find once we’ve moved to Korea. The combination of new sights, smells, sounds, tastes and experiences in Korea can certainly overwhelm a new, or even seasoned, expat. In Korea, as with any place in the world, the experiences we have as expats are not separate from the history of our host nation, nor are they separate from its culture, politics, and economics. They are part of the complicated grid of relationships between events that have culminated to create everything we see and do. Understanding our place among those relationships necessarily requires us to delve into the history, culture, politics and economics of this great country.

Despite a constant overwhelming of the senses, I’ve spoken to many expats who desire a deeper, richer understanding of the country they now call home. They come here as politicized subjects and quickly realize that their social capital and access to resources have slimmed to a sliver of what they used to be back home. Without speaking the language or knowing what resources exist, accessing the knowledge to facilitate that desire becomes difficult- if not impossible. Amid many other easily accessible opportunities, the yearning to seek out opportunities in the political realm is swiftly swept under the rug- unless it conveniently presents itself.

I was in Korea for about 5 months, and despite rushing headlong into anything that came my way, that yearning remained. It was then that, through the blessing that is the internet, I came into contact with an individual from the International Strategy Center (ISC). For the past nine months, I have been lucky enough to participate with their media team as a writer and blogger, as well as to experience the culture of Korea by learning about its history, politics and economics. I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to meet and speak with activists, politicians, farmers and workers and to share stories over food and drink. I’ve been dazzled by the beauty and serenity of the Korean countryside as I traveled around the country. I’ve been inspired through demonstrations, conferences, songs and speeches to continue showing solidarity with the struggles facing the Korean people. And after the weekend of November 22nd, 2013, when I attended a workshop by the ISC titled “Korean Culture, History, Politics and Economics,” I have been able to reflect upon my place within it all.

The workshop was a three-day intensive study, with four lectures, 2 field trips, and plenty of discussions. Although I was familiar with much of the topics discussed, I was also introduced to much new information. The lectures were a unique opportunity for our new guests to analyze the topics, to reflect and to gain new insights.

Haesook Kim, Director of the ISC, guided us through 5000 years of Korean history, focusing on the struggles and uprisings that shaped Korea with a focus on modern history. She began her presentation with an important reminder. “We must make history the cornerstone of our future,” she said, and went on to enlighten us on the three kingdoms, highlighting how each legacy contributed to modern Korean culture. I began to connect how certain occurrences of the past are, indeed, very much present. For instance, she spoke of the Silla kingdom, which developed Korea’s rich culture, much of which we marvel at today; she spoke of Koryo (고려), which traded extensively with other countries resulting in the use of the name Korea; and she spoke of Chosun, founded on Confucianism, which informs the family values and gender relations of many Koreans today. History has acted as the cornerstone for countless aspects of modern Korean culture, and continues to drive its evolution. I began to think about how I got here. What historical events necessitated the development of such a robust English language sector in this county?

Min-A Kim, Chair of Policy for the Arts Collective for a New Era, explained the history of Korean economics before exploring Korea’s current economic policy under neoliberalism. How did Korea develop its technology sector? she asked. With nothing but curious eyes attending to her question, she began to explain two major events- the democracy movement of June 1987, and the general workers strike that occurred from July to September of that year. The strike saw the establishment of independent trade unions and was an enormous victory for workers who had, for decades, earned extremely low wages working in factories. Workers could no longer be exploited as they had been in the industrial era, and so the economy began shifting into the higher value added technology industries. With the success of the technology industry, Korea’s economy gradually became less dependent on the U.S, which had been supplying it with economic aid. In 1997, foreign investors pulled their money out of the country within a month and the U.S simultaneously demanded that Korea pay back all of its debts. This “tactic” has been used in many countries, including Mexico and Brazil, as a way to coerce nations into adopting a neoliberal system of economics. In Korea, it lead to a liquidity crisis. With no money to pay back its debts, Korea had no choice but to enter into agreements with the IMF and World Bank, ushering in an era of neoliberalism which guides economic policies to this day. I began to wonder, how is the Korean and world economy connected to my role as an English teacher? Am I somehow supporting neoliberalism through that role?

Yeon Wook Chung, Chairman of the YongSan Region Committee of the Justice Party, explored the last 25 years of Korean politics as a window into the lives of Koreans while highlighting the progress and regression of Korean democracy. The most poignant part of his lecture was his investigation of Korea’s social problems. Korea is top rated among all OECD countries for suicide, divorce, car crashes, work hours, poverty among the elderly, cosmetic surgery (with 1 out of 5 women having had it) intestine and stomach cancer and low birth rate. People in every age bracket are stressed, he says. As children they are pressured to study, as young adults they are stressed by a shrinking job market, as adults they become economically sandwiched between supporting their children’s and their parents’ futures, and as they grow older they must worry about retirement. He says the growing social and economic divides are exemplified by these occurrences. Ten percent of the population controls forty percent of the assets in this country. As the income gap increases, so too does social inequality. A cycle of dependency is created when people are unable to meet their economic needs, leading to a life of stress and a society filled with less than praise-worthy number ones. I paused, How has my role as an English teacher contributed to the stress of individual students and whole families? How am I implicated in the continuation of these social problems?

Jeong-Eun Hwang, Director of Communications for the ISC, discussed the role of the ISC, specifically its organization, works, vision and direction. Her message brought everything together. “It is not about what knowledge we gain,” she said, “it’s about what we do with that knowledge. How can we put our knowledge into action?” One of the ways that she and the ISC accomplish this is by “seeing things as they really are.” The world is being crushed by neoliberalism. Economies are crashing. Poverty and inequality are rising. So they engage with the issues, they create solidarity among struggling groups and they study alternatives. In February 2014, they will travel to Venezuela for the second time to further research what these alternatives can look like.

Personally, I participate, I listen, I share and I write.  I’m trying to place myself within Korea’s robust history and determine the implications that English teaching may have on the future of this society. I’m continuing to think through my role as an educator in an industry necessitated by unequal global power relationships and fueled by the maintenance of that system. I’m starting to understand how I’m positioned within the totem pole of stress that contributes to the country’s suicide and cancer rates. And I don’t have the answers, nor do I know if answers are really what matter. But I know there are connections, and that to put my knowledge into action is to continue discovering the connections that bring us together and challenging those that pull us apart. To see things as they really are, as Jeong-Eun challenged us to do. I try to always be aware of my place in the vast grid of relationships that have contributed to the rich set of experiences I’ve had in Korea. And now I’d like to challenge you to better understand Korea, and through that journey, to better understand yourself.

Korean Democracy at a Crossroads- FPIF

By targeting public officials who scrutinize the country’s notorious internal intelligence service, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is rolling back hard-won democratic gains in South Korea.

“When Park Geun-hye became president of South Korea earlier this year, there was a sense of unease among many that the election of a dictator’s daughter represented a step backward for the country’s three-decade old democracy. Recent events show those fears to be well founded…”

Continue reading Korean Democracy at a Crossroads by Geoffery Fattig for Foreign Policy in Focus

battered but Unbroken – a Poem

by Kellyn Gross

being battered but Unbroken

being battered but Unbroken is presence

standing at the squat pedestal of bygone King Sejong

standing on two feet in defiance of police protecting the Stars and Stripes

while some are wheelchair-bound

affirming that you don’t need to be able to stand

to stand for something

where badged spokesmen warn through megaphones to let bygones be bygones

under an altar of 300 Korean martyrs to the cause of social justice

their captured smiles in the muggy heat

burnt incense and sobs breaking silence

being battered but Unbroken is remembrance

unity in view of Bugak Mountain

where tigers once roamed in this granite fortress

protectors of the dead

ancient animal symbols of reverence and the summer sun

that gives way to monsoon rains in June

feared creatures by Hanseong citizens whose shamans called upon mountain deities

to banish them

only to be displaced dynasties later by the rains of empire and enterprise

protectors of capital

being battered but Unbroken is belonging

whether Korean  Egyptian  Libyan

Syrian  Greek  Turkish  Brazilian

confronting shady deals  disorder  destitution

brutality  austerity  shopping malls

World Cups where the World’s Poor are cast aside

the oppressed on all continents solemnly vowing an end to suffering no matter the threats

no matter the rubber bullets  real-deal bullets   bombs and concrete prisons

there will be days of revolution

there will be nights of camaraderie and candor

being battered but Unbroken is power

not the ascendancy of Park Geun Hye or the lasting legacy of Gaddafi

not the brutality of al-Assad or the hegemony of Erdogan

but the prerogative of the people

when enough is enough

and a wave of disillusionment flows in

IMF refugees dismantling despotism

burdened hearts sloughing off layers of fear  exploitation  abuse

unmasking injustice

reclaiming space for healing and renewal

being battered but Unbroken is declaration

toojaeng shouted in Gwanghwamun Plaza

Turk istiklalini graffitied in Taksim Square

vem pra rua chanted in Sao Paulo’s streets

the spectacle of terror forced into a dialectic with reality

because this is bigger than any evening news program

yet the Dictator’s Daughter still promises economic democratization

and the Duck from Damascus declares that he rules by the will of the people

but citizens won’t be duped by lies  or cowed by tear gas and stun grenades

their bloodshed by free trade and autocracy is testimony enough

being battered but Unbroken is sustenance

a daughter bound for Seoul City Hall in 1919  in 1960  in 1980  in 1987

her mother wondering if she’s eaten before she takes to the streets

the minjung movement of conscience with action

transformation in the factories and in the shanty towns

underground theoretics giving purpose  deriving meaning

men chewing melon and sipping raki at round-table discussions in Ankara

hungry souls who mention that police will shoot people down like stray dogs

dehumanized and lionized in the same breath

they say the pain is worth the dignity any day

being battered but Unbroken is hope

Hyundai workers atop 50-meter pylons  han at life’s core

struggling and yet envisioning a just horizon beyond dispatch employment

Greek public servants on a 24-hour strike  debt servitude to the troika

halting flights to offices in D. C.  in Frankfurt   in Luxembourg

societies sold to the highest bidder

societies torn down and awaiting rebirth

but the people  battered but Unbroken

they have spoken

Resolution to Struggle: a Declaration for Human Liberation

Translated from the 22nd Commemoration Ceremony for Martyrs and Victims for the Nation and Democracy  June 8, 2013, Seoul, South Korea

Since the time of the Gabo (Tonghak) Peasant Revolution[i] through Japanese colonial rule and then military dictatorship until today in the 21st century, the worker’s and people’s progressive social transformation movement has continuously been marching towards national and social liberation. Our martyrs have always been at the frontlines sacrificing their lives.

Our martyr’s frontline struggles have always lent great moral authority to the workers and peoples[ii] struggles. Unlike the few who ruled for their interests, the noble deeds of our martyrs were dedicated to the progress of society and history.

Yet, the noble struggle of our martyrs should also serve as a model for our own day-to-day living – to maintain self-giving behavior for the progress of society and history no matter how large or small the struggle – so that their deaths would not have been in vain. The martyrs have inspired and urged us to work unceasingly towards a liberated world where we can live as human beings.

In this 22nd commemoration, we face a period of intensifying global contradictions between capital and working people and between empires and small and weak nations brought about by the recession of this century. In far away Europe, worker’s struggles in Greece and Spain have burst forth in a blaze, and its flames are expanding towards Asia’s Turkey. Imperialism’s reckless attacks on small and weak countries in North Africa, Libya and Mali are spreading to Syria, Lebanon, and Iran.

Jeju protestersOur land is also thus affected. Within the reality of an ever more permanent US Wartime Operational Control[iii] and the ROK-US Combined Forces Command, the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle war games continue year after year; the threat of nuclear attack persists with the mobilization of B-2, F-22, nuclear-powered aircraft super carrier USS Nimitz, and state-of-the-art weapons; economic sanctions choke the North Korean people; and villagers are pushed out of Gangjeong Village in Jeju Island to make room for a naval base.

Faced with a crisis, our land’s government and capital attempts to overcome capital’s crisis by more severely repressing workers and working people. President Park Geun Hye’s campaign promises of economic democratization are nowhere to be found and in its stead is economic growth as the cure all. In response, a people and youth, trapped in despair, are taking their own lives.

Ssanyoung autoUnder a false legal government take-over of Ssanyong Auto, workers were violently expelled from the factory. Now, one by one Ssanyong Auto’s accounting manipulation and fabrications are being exposed. 4 years later, 24 Ssanyong Auto workers have taken their own lives. Despite 171 days of high-altitude occupation on top of an electric pylon, the issue still remains unresolved. The presidential campaign promises for a national governmental investigation into Ssanyong Auto are quickly revealing themselves empty promises.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling that employment of in-house subcontracted workers[iv] is illegal and mandating a switch to regular worker status,[v] Hyundai Motors has not budged. As a result, Hyundai irregular workers are continuing on their high altitude occupation of a high voltage electric pylon for over 6 months. The basic worker rights of public workers and teachers are also being threatened. And for the nearly 90 percent of workers who are employed as irregular workers in small-medium, and small-scale (5-10 employees) enterprises, their basic rights as workers are completely denied. In this way the rights of workers are being completely deprived by the dictatorship of the capitalist class.

The tyranny of capital and the government is not only attacking wage workers but also farmers and the urban poor. Farmers are becoming the rural poor and the urban poor are stripped of their rights to feed and clothe themselves through work as street vendors. On the other hand, the rights of people to a home are being trampled on for the sake of capital’s real estate speculation. Due to the avarice of monopoly capitalists even the existence of small-business people is being threatened.

Workers and people’s livelihood and civil rights are being threatened, deprived, and denied. Within this context, democracy is being replaced with maintaining public peace and order[vi]. Immediately after coming into office, Park Geun Hye administration violently expelled workers and farmers from their peaceful occupations. The government, through the police, prosecution, and National Intelligence Service creates incidents of public peace and order to repress the people’s movements. The first 100 days of the current regime has been referred to as the “Lee Myung Bak Geun Hye”[vii] regime.

24 years ago, breaking through the Roh Tae Woo administration’s efforts to corral and isolate us and while clutching the photos of our martyrs, amidst tear gas, we held the first ever commemoration for the martyrs and victims for our nation and democracy. Now, looking back at our workers and people’s living conditions and the current state of our movements, we cannot but humbly acknowledge our inadequacy in carrying on and fulfilling the noble sacrifices our martyrs made to create a world of human liberation. Henceforth, in the occasion of the 22nd National Commemoration, as we remember each of the lives and struggles of the approximately 600 martyrs and victims for our nation and democracy, we re-examine and straighten our own selves up and rededicate ourselves. Above all, imbued with the noble spirit of those martyrs that sacrificed it all to realize true democracy, self-determination, and reunification[viii] and build a world of worker’s and human liberation, we commit to overcoming our divisions and building a strong and unified struggle. Together, we resolve to go out and struggle true to our progressive transformation movement’s great cause, untouched by reformism and careerism.

June 8, 2013

22nd Commemoration Ceremony for the Martyrs and Victims for Our Nation and Democracy


[i] A Peasant’s Revolution in 1894 calling for equality of all against the injustices of the ruling class.

[ii] In this case “people” refers to the “common people,” the other oppressed groups in society such as farmers, the disabled, the urban poor, etc.

[iii] During “wartime,” operational control of the US ROK Combined Forces Command is held by the US. The first date for the transfer of wartime operational control from the US to South Korea was 2012, which has been postponed to 2015.

[iv] Workers that while they do the same job as factory employees under the company payroll, nonetheless, are treated differently as they are hired not by the company but through a subcontracting company.

[v] Regular workers are those hired directly by the company and do not work on a contract basis.

[vi] During Korea’s period of dictatorship and even afterwards, peace and public safety have been used as pretexts to severely repress movements calling for democratization, worker’s rights, peace, and reunification.

[vii] Lee Myung Bak Geun Hye is a play on the fact that in Korean both Lee Myung Bak and Park Geun Hye share the Bak/Park (which in Korean is written the same way), Lee Myung Bak as the second syllable to his first name and Park Geun Hye as her last name. This is to point out that Park Geun Hye’s administration is merely a continuation of Lee Myung Bak’s.

[viii] In Korean, self-determination and reunification are combined into one word as an indication of their inseparable nature.

A sign of struggle: the Gwangju uprising and the politics of symbolism

By Taryn Assaf

Since the tragic incident that befell the citizens of Gwangju, South Korea, in May of 1980, events commemorating this time have stood as a symbol of strength, unity and power among citizens throughout the country. Subsequent revolutions, such as the democracy movement of 1987 and various workers movements have drawn upon the Gwangju uprising as a symbol of the fight for democracy. Although the uprising did not directly lead to democracy in Korea, it is still heralded as a leading example of the fight against oppression in the name of human rights.

A commemoration continues every year on May 18 to honor the uprising and its historical place in the lineage of Korean democratization. A variety of festivals and cultural events fill the historic Geunnamro- the street upon which the battles between citizen and soldier were fought- for the purpose of educating people about the uprising under the theme of remembrance. A variety of stalls line the street, some promoting various political causes and charities, some offering the opportunity to make Gwangju-themed woodblock art and others dressed in sketches of political satire. Cheers and songs can be heard in the distance from groups rallying for workers rights; indeed, the feeling is light and jovial. Smiles can be seen on the faces of most- and the energy is emblematic of a spirit that was first ignited in May of 1980.

The mood at the May 18 Cemetery is much more somber, as it reflects the tragedy of lives lost. The cemetery is divided into two: the old and the new. After the massacre in 1980, the bodies of the deceased were buried in what is now considered the “old/unofficial” cemetery. However, the “old/unofficial” cemetery also contains the bodies of those who struggled for democratization in the years leading to the June Uprising in 1987: students and activists who self-immolated in public displays of protests or were kidnapped and tortured to death in their efforts to expose the truth about the Korean and American government’s involvement in the massacre. These people were buried in the same cemetery as those who died from direct involvement in 1980. However, in 1997 the bodies of those who died in the uprising (as well as those who died in the direct aftermath from physical or mental injuries) were exhumed and moved to the “new/official” cemetery. The Memorial Hall Museum and the 40-foot Memorial Tower were also built there, while the bodies of those who died in the years following the uprising were kept in the humble fields behind the new project. The two cemeteries came to represent two different aspects of the uprising: the new, designed to represent a commemoration of past sacrifices and the old marked by the symbolism of a continuing struggle. Interesting to note is the suggestion evident in the process of naming. Equating “new” with “official” and “old” with “unofficial” serve to influence popular conception of the significance of the different actors involved in the uprising, their place in history, their ideologies and their legacies. Two separate ceremonies for 2013 were held in honor of the uprising and those lost, although they marked a significant difference in the approach to commemorating the tragedy. While both ceremonies were attended by family members of the deceased and members of the general public, the official ceremony at the new cemetery was also attended by Heads of State, while the unofficial ceremony at the old cemetery, was attended by labor unions, student groups and activists.  The divergent themes expressed in both ceremonies symbolized an acute polarization of opinion regarding the present meaning of the Gwangju uprising and the state of human rights in Korea, thereby coming to represent two different interpretations of democracy: one in which democracy has been fought for and attained, and the other in which democracy has yet to be fully achieved. The question lingers: does the uprising live as a historical memory or as a present example of the people’s struggle?

At the official ceremony, a large stage in front of Memorial Tower was centered in between large screens and was wired with speakers, microphones and cameras; facing the stage and the tombs lining the hill behind it were hundreds of chairs reserved for guests, including politicians (Park Geun-Hye, the country’s conservative president, being the most notable), families of those killed in the uprising and members of the public. Police presence was particularly acute, with hundreds of officers lining gates and the sidelines of the ceremony. Dozens of police buses narrowed the streets surrounding the cemetery, as if warning some unseen enemy. It seemed odd, indeed ironic, to so heavily secure a memorial for the deaths of those who had fought to overcome heavy security. Nevertheless, this was the ceremony the country would see via mainstream media coverage, thus the mood was kept somber and serious; the set up, careful and elaborate; the surveillance, pervasive and intimidating. Movement was limited, as those who left the ceremony were not allowed re-entry. Taken together, the character of this arrangement was representative of the government’s efforts to control the attendance, program, and perception of the ceremony and the carefully managed themes chosen to symbolize it. This was especially evident in the Park government’s decision to exclude the singing of the song “March for the Beloved” in the ceremony, a song composed in 1981 in memory of the uprising. The song has since been sung at many, if not most, protests organized by labor unions and progressives as a symbol of the spirit of democracy. However, past and present conservative governments have viewed the song as “controversial”, indicating a conflict of ideologies that led to its planned exclusion in this year’s ceremony. After protests and an occupation at the entrance of the memorial park, the government’s final decision was a compromise: the song would be sung by a choir and whoever chose to could sing along; President Park chose not to.

Park did try to offer some words of encouragement in a speech, saying that “the ultimate goal of democracy is to ensure the happiness of the people.” The implications of this statement became unclear as she continued, “It is time to change the economic paradigm from that of one oriented toward quantitative growth to qualitative growth and to expand democracy from the social and political sphere to the realm of the economy.” This statement shifts the focus of the democratic pursuit from social/political to economic, insisting that democracy should no longer focus solely on liberating society and politics from its oppressors, but on liberating the economy from its as well[1]. This implication takes precedence away from current issues blocking peoples’ and workers’ rights- many of which stem from neoliberal economic policies- towards bolstering the conservative polity and a denial of rights violations, past and present, as they link to government and economy. The bloody massacre was inherently tied to government and economy, as it was supported by the Carter administration in order to ensure American investments in Korea, investments dependent on the preservation of the Chun Doo-Hwan government. Had the government been successfully overthrown by the uprising, it would have cost American investors millions of dollars of potential profits. The American government has never taken responsibility for their involvement in the massacre, leading many to believe that “the Gwangju issue is a U.S issue; it has not yet been solved,” as declared by one man to a crowd boycotting the official ceremony. Park’s recent visit to the U.S, where she and President Obama reaffirmed their commitment to the market economy, begs one to question her definition of “happiness” and how the issue of the economy is relevant at such a memorial. Many have also accused the President of not understanding peoples’ struggles from a peoples’ perspective. As the daughter of Park Chun-Hee (the infamous dictator credited for the development of Korea’s tiger economy but criticized as a repressive leader who restricted many personal freedoms) and nicknamed a “princess”, she has described her father’s rule as being a “revolution to save the country” and has thus been criticized for not understanding the full scope of her father’s legacy, particularly the harm it caused many Korean citizens. The unwillingness to acknowledge the full scope of her father’s rule, the banning of the song and her statements in the ceremony leads to the troubling implication that she does not understand- nor does she seem interested in understanding- the spirit of the Gwangju uprising and the subsequent movements that have adopted this spirit into their own struggles. How can the happiness of the people be achieved if the president herself cannot recognize the existence of their struggle? Indeed, this idea was presented in the speech of one man at an overnight sit-in in front of the cemetery. On the eve of May 18, a number of activists, labor unions and citizens gathered outside the main gate of the cemetery (aptly named Democracy’s Gate) to boycott the coming ceremony in protest of the ban of “March for the Beloved”. Amidst the glow of candlelight, the song was sung by the crowd between short speeches criticizing the government’s decision. “The consciousness of May 18 is our struggle’s consciousness,” declared the man, who went on to say “the fact that she (Park Geun-Hye) banned the song proves the Gwangju spirit is not inside of her.” The Gwangju spirit is one that fights for democracy in the context of human rights, not the economy. Had the president visited the old cemetery, perhaps she could have experienced what it means to possess this spirit.

The “unofficial” ceremony at the old cemetery differed greatly from the new/official. Activists, journalists, labor unions, student groups, organizers, members of the public and families of the fallen mingled between the rows of graves which sloped downward toward a makeshift wooden stage against a backdrop of hundreds of tombstones sprawled over the tumbling fields of the Citizen’s Park behind it. Rather than police, the entrance to the cemetery was occupied by activists rallying to end worker’s rights abuses perpetrated by Samsung. No elaborate gates, museums or monuments decorated this cemetery, only the graves of martyrs and their altars telling their stories of sacrifice. As mentioned previously, most of those buried in this cemetery were those who died in the years after May 1980 in their pursuit to expose the truth of the uprising, as post-1980 Korea experienced a media blackout by Chun Doo-Hwan’s military government in hopes of suppressing the truth about their sanctioning of the massacre in order to maintain tight control on the nation and discourage any further uprisings. The cemetery therefore represented a continuation of the struggle – the continued fight for justice, truth and democracy. As groups traversed the rows of graves to pay their respects and offer moments of silence, Jeon Tae-Sam, brother of the late Jeon Tae-Il, who, in 1970, self-immolated in the name of worker’s rights and has since become the symbol of the Korean labor movement, spoke about his role in organizing workers and supporting workers rights.  He spoke of the importance of working together as people on the path towards social justice. His words echoed the spirit of the dead and were reminiscent of the current obstacles to securing people’s rights in Korea and abroad.

The keynote speaker to this ceremony was chairman Oh Jeong-Ryul (오종렬) who has been a leading figure in the pursuit of bringing truth to the happenings of May 18 since his involvement in 1980. He spoke passionately about the vital need for peace and re-unification in the context of the Gwangju uprising. “We need peoples’ and workers’ liberation,” he said, adding “The divided people must become one again. We must re-unify for the people of Gwangju.” He explained that the labeling tactics used against Gwangju citizens as “rebels”, “rioters”, “mobsters”, “communists” and “North Korean sympathizers” were used by the government to delegitimize the uprising and shift popular support away from a revolutionary ideology. This could not have been possible in a unified Korea. This process of labeling continues today, he went on, and thus it is as important as ever to continue to fight for justice -for peace- through re-unification. In a video letter (the transcript of which you can download here) addressed to a gathering of Korean-Americans and those concerned about Korean peace and reunification, he described the cemetery as “filled with the democratic yearnings of our people”, a statement that aptly captures the symbolic nature of the ceremony and the old cemetery which houses it each year. “March for the Beloved” was also sung numerous times and in several formats (one with the accompaniment of a clarinet). In reference to the banning of the song, Oh criticized the Park government, shouting “How dare they ban it; for a democratic country we must respect the song and its meaning.” The ceremony thus came to represent much more than a remembrance of those lost; it represented an ongoing struggle for rights, peace and liberation, and in this way, embodied an interpretation of democracy that extends beyond the history of its achievement and emphasized that in remembering the sacrifices of the dead, we must not forget the struggles of the living; for the two are implicated in the same system of oppression that continues exploit the rights of human beings today.

Sometimes, ideas present themselves through the subtle nuances of signs and symbols. In order to understand those ideas and to question their implications, it is important to deconstruct the occurrences of our everyday existence. Just as a picture can say a thousand words, a single phrase, a common action or an organized event can house a thousand meanings. What people say (or don’t), how people behave (or misbehave) and what events are covered (or ignored) can speak volumes on an issue, if only we take the time to understand what they are saying. To begin understanding the state of democracy in Korea, we must look for signs of struggle where there seem to be none. We must examine events, people, words and actions to discover what democracy means and what achieving it entails. The May 18 memorial ceremonies, both official and unofficial, symbolized two differing democratic ideologies that presented themselves through their different interpretations of the meaning of the Gwangju uprising- one places the achievement of democracy in the past while the other continues to seek its establishment. One can only hope that the legacies of those struggles continue to thrive through the actions that represent them, and that they are never, ever forgotten.


[1] It should be noted that many in the social movement are not opposed to the idea of economic democratization per se, but they do believe that Park’s notion is weak, skewed, contradictory, and ultimately unviable given the many private interests she needs to satisfy.